April is Stress Awareness Month so this post will explore common signs and how to address them. Stress is commonly defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Stress is a natural response to challenging situations, but if it becomes chronic, it can have a significant impact on your mental health. While stress affects everyone differently, there are common signs that suggest stress is impacting your mental health.
Let’s explore 10 signs that stress is impacting your mental health:
Difficulty sleeping: Stress can cause sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This can lead to fatigue and difficulty concentrating during the day.
You may find that you have a running to-do list, racing thoughts, and wishing you did things differently which causes you to stress about these things and makes it challenging to get sleep. In thinking about your sleep, you probably have a cycle where you don’t get quality sleep and so you feel more stressed during the day and then you have trouble sleeping because you were stressed from the day.
Changes in appetite: Stress can impact your appetite, causing you to overeat or undereat. This can lead to weight gain or loss and nutrient deficiencies.
Your changes can fluctuate between the two, from overeating to undereating. We may find comfort in ordering out or indulging in foods that bring temporary satisfaction but leaves us not feeling great later (I have done this plenty of times, I want to treat myself and don’t have the energy to make something that makes me feel better, so I order something that is cheesy and hot and later feel pretty crappy because I am not used to eating all of that).
You may find that you have a decreased appetite or even no time to eat so you skip meals. Maybe that hunger is masked by consuming more caffeine or distracting yourself.
Decreased energy: Chronic stress can leave you feeling exhausted and drained, even if you haven't done anything physically demanding.
When you experience stress, you can find that you have sore muscles that “don’t make sense” since you did not exercise and maybe sat at your desk all day, or did the same level of activity as you always do. What you may not realize is that you can be tensing your muscles from stress which leaves them exhausted after hours and hours of this.
For example, do you find you are having neck pain more recently? It might be that you are shrugging your shoulders while working, especially if you sit and are at a desk.
Increased irritability: Stress can make you more irritable and short-tempered, causing conflicts with others.
You are focused on getting a million things done and when someone asks you to do something or even to just chat, it probably feels like “I don’t have time for this!”. It might be a minor interruption, but when you are trying to accomplish so many things at once, it is not a minor interruption to you.
Feeling anxious: Chronic stress can trigger anxiety, causing feelings of worry and nervousness.
This may feel like it is all one-in-the-same when explored, but you can really see that this just increased in their demand, pushed off other things like caring for yourself or prioritizing certain things, and boom, you are feeling the effects of anxiety.
I often think of anxiety as being future-oriented and that you try to think 10 steps ahead from where you are. Though you may have to do this when it comes to certain demands at home, school, or work; it can be problematic when this is for every situation in your life, including “smaller” situations.
Loss of interest: Stress can make you lose interest in activities you once enjoyed, leading to a sense of apathy or disconnection.
When you don’t have energy or time, things that you want to do and that brought you enjoyment fall to the wayside. You probably feel “well there is no time!”
Physical symptoms: Chronic stress can manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, and muscle tension.
Sometimes it is hard to recognize the many signs our bodies try to tell us that we are too stressed, when it comes to physical symptoms, you may find that it is challenging to see if it is stress or not as these symptoms are similar to other things such as being sick. You can analyze what is going on and see that you may not be sick but experiencing the physical symptoms of stress.
Difficulty concentrating: Stress can make it difficult to focus and concentrate, leading to decreased productivity and poor performance at work, school, doing things at home, and even when socializing.
Negative self-talk: Chronic stress can lead to negative self-talk and self-criticism, damaging self-esteem and confidence.
Substance use: Stress can increase the risk of substance use, such as alcohol or drugs, as a way to cope with the overwhelming feelings of stress.
This provides quick and temporary relief from stress and anxiety but you may find that it leads to more feelings of stress. Substances impact our sleep cycle and then impact our alertness and concentration throughout the day.
Managing stress is crucial for maintaining good mental health and preventing more serious conditions like anxiety or depression. Let’s look at strategies that can help manage stress and can lead to improving your mental health.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the current moment. Mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help reduce stress and improve mental health by calming the mind and relaxing the body. Understandably, this can be stressful when you first start practicing because it is hard to tune out all you have to do and everything you have going on. This can provide even a few minutes of relaxation and being present.
Exercise regularly: Exercise is an effective way to reduce stress and improve mental health. Regular exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters, and promote relaxation. This does not mean you have to go powerlifting every day. A walk outside or any movement has the ability to improve your mental health and mood.
Prioritize self-care: Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally is essential for reducing stress and improving mental health. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, engaging in hobbies or activities you enjoy, and setting aside time for relaxation. You cannot always work under high pressure with little to nothing in your fuel tank, it is not efficient nor healthy overall for you.
Connect with others: Social support is a powerful tool in managing stress and improving mental health. Talking with a friend, family member, or therapist can help you process your emotions and gain perspective on your situation. You may find that this is hard to prioritize but there are strategies out there for you, you can even schedule calls if that is helpful to commit and hold yourself accountable to connecting with others.
Set realistic goals: Setting realistic goals and breaking them down into smaller, achievable steps can help reduce stress and improve mental health. This approach can help you stay motivated and focused, leading to a sense of accomplishment and reduced stress. By setting more realistic goals, you are setting realistic expectations for yourself. You will feel more accomplished when crossing off those items/tasks/goals when they are easier to achieve which will help motivate you also and can help manage stress.
Limit exposure to stressors: While it's not always possible to avoid stressors, you can limit your exposure to them as best as possible. This can include setting boundaries at work, avoiding stressful news or social media, or delegating responsibilities when possible.
Mental health therapy: If your stress levels are persistent or interfering with your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help. A mental health therapist can provide support, guidance, and treatment options for managing stress and improving mental health.
Therapy is a way to help you gain more insight into the “why” to explain the cause(s) along with identifying triggers that keep stress going. By building awareness, it will also help you identify solutions to alleviate stress. Therapy will be able to provide you with the necessary strategies that will help you manage stress more effectively and allow you to live a more enjoyable life.
Remember that managing stress is an ongoing process, and it may take time to find the strategies that work best for you. It's important to prioritize your mental health and take action to reduce stress levels before it leads to more serious conditions. With the right tools and support, it's possible to manage stress and improve your mental health. One strategy or tool that works for a friend or someone you know may not work for you, that is okay, we are all different. A therapist can help you navigate and find which strategies work best for you.
Blog Disclaimer - These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.